With its Mediterranean diet inscribed as intangible UNESCO heritage, visitors are drawn by the simple, natural and fresh products, which go into recipes handed down by grandmothers over centuries, and honey has been very much a part of that diet for millennia.
The original name of the magical island of Mljet, for example, is derived from the Greek ‘Melita’ and Latin ‘Mel’, which mean honey, a reference to its past when its woods were inhabited by swarms of bees. Perhaps St. Paul and Odysseus tasted that sweet natural goodness when they were shipwrecked on Mljet.
Croatia’s island honey heritage is documented as far back as the 16th century, as the main ingredient of Stari Grad’s Starogrojski paprenjok, a tasty pastry that Petar Hektorović also mentioned in his work Fishing and Fishermen’s Talk. Its history actually dates back some 800 years, and the delicious finely-decorated biscuits were given to fishermen by their wives before they went out to sea, while they make excellent Hvar souvenirs today.
Croatian honey is of outstanding quality and has received much international recognition, including a fourth place at the Apimondia 2011 in Argentina for the mono-floral rosemary honey from the island of Šćedro. Indeed, the mono-floral types of honey in Croatia are one of the keys to its success. With such an array of aromatic flora to choose from, those busy bees are somewhat spoiled for choice, and the range of honey flavours on offer is quite extraordinary. Among the most highly recommended are the sage honey from the Kornati Islands and the rosemary honey from Šolta.
Croatia’s beekeepers are very active, and they take advantage of different climate conditions in search of the best end product, and it is common for island beekeepers, for example, to move their hives from the islands to the mainland after spring. This is because the development of a colony depends on several factors, including temperature, region and rain. The long hot summers on the Mediterranean are not ideal, and many beekeepers relocate their busy workers to a slightly cooler climate on the mainland during that period.
In recent years, Croatia’s honey producers have made themselves more accessible to tourists, and honey tours are an increasingly popular attraction in the emerging agritourism market, giving visitors a chance to taste this natural goodness, as well as fascinated younger eyes learning about the whole honey production process. And with each hive housing up to 80,000 bees, things are certainly busy!
Croatia would not be Croatia if a natural product was not turned into rakija, and honey rakija is no exception (medena rakija, medica or medovača). As with most rakijas, locals will tell you that a shot or two every day is the best medicine for many ailments.
A more interesting alcoholic variant using honey is called ‘gvirc’, which is claimed to be the oldest alcoholic drink consumed, where honey is fermented in a process similar to wine, in some cases with grapes, in some without. Another interesting offshoot of this to be found in various places in Croatia is honey vinegar, which makes for an excellent and flavoursome salad dressing. And if you are looking for something a little extra, head down to Pag and sample the local sparkling honey wine.
But for really honey goodness beloved by all Croatian kids, nothing quite beats medenjaci, gingerbread honey cookies, which are spiced with cloves, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg. And no medenjaci are loved more than the Licitar hearts, a symbol of the capital city of Zagreb.
While Licitar hearts are a symbol of the capital, their origin is a little further north. The tasty hearts can be found on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, Gingerbread craft is inscribed as “Gingerbread craft from Northern Croatia”.
This being Croatia, a festival is never far away to celebrate natural goodness, and honey lovers should head to Ogulin. Now in its sixth year, the Ogulin Days of Honey and Ogulin Cabbage is a popular event, which brings together some of the best honey in the region each September.
While beekeeping and its honey is perhaps most visible along the coast, the tradition spans the entire country. Indeed, the oldest surviving beekeeping collective is in Osijek and dates back to 1879. The Pannonian honey-producing region is an important and diverse one. Its varying terrain and vegetation mean that the flowering period is long, from February to September.
Even Croatia’s less accessible regions, such as its central mountain ranges, have their beekeeping traditions. There are less beekeepers here, and the flora is less diverse, but the quality is high, and honeydew plays a major part.
A final word on buying honey as you drive through coastal and continental Croatia. You will see many vendors at the side of the road selling honey, as well as other natural products. They are usually the producers themselves, bringing fresh natural Croatian goodness directly to the customers.
And if this is not sweet enough for you, make sure you visit the first 5 star bee hotel on the outskirts of Garešnica, where you can try a honey breakfast!